Take a deep breath, gang – because we’re diving to the depths of the ocean with some cool killer whale facts!
Fast killer whale facts
Scientific name: Orcinus orca
Family name: Delphinidae
IUCN status: Data deficient
Lifespan (in wild): 50-90 years
Weight: Males up to 9,000kg. Females up to 5,500kg
Head and body length: Males up to 9.8m. Females up to 8.5m
Top speed: 48km/h
Eight tonnes of pure power whacks an ice floe floating in cold Arctic waters. The seal lying on top of the ice doesn’t stand a chance. Knocked into the sea, the seal becomes a meal for one of the ocean’s top predators – the huge killer whale!
Killer whales, also called orcas, hunt everything from fish to walruses – seals, sea lions, penguins, squid, sea turtles, sharks and even other kinds of whales are all on their menu.
Depending on the season and where they are, their diet varies – some eat plenty of fish and squid, others feast mostly on seals and penguins.
But wherever they are in any of the world’s oceans, average-sized killer whales may eat about 227 kilograms of food a day!
These mega marine mammals have many hunting techniques, and bumping seals off ice is just one of them. Often referred to as ‘wolves of the sea
Fate of orcas in captivity – Whale & Dolphin Conservation USA
Killer whales, more properly known as orcas, have been kept in captivity since 1961, helpless victims of a blatantly commercial experiment which has seen dozens of wild orcas plucked from their families and forced to live in artificial social groupings which bear scant resemblance to their life in the wild.
were captured in the wild
At least 166 orcas have been taken into captivity from the wild since 1961 (including Pascuala and Morgan).
- 129 of these orcas are now dead.
- In the wild, male orcas live to an average of 30 years (maximum 50-60 years) and 46 years for females (maximum 80-90 years).
- At least 166 orcas have died in captivity, not including 30 miscarried or still-born calves.
- SeaWorld holds 20 orcas in its three parks in the United States. At least forty-nine orcas have died at SeaWorld.
- One of the most infamous capture incidents saw over 80 whales from the Southern Resident population of orcas in Washington State rounded-up at Penn Cove in 1970. Seven were taken into captivity while as many as five whales died. Today this population is recognised as endangered. Only one captured whale, Lolita, is still alive, held at Miami Seaquarium.
- At least 19 orcas have been taken from the wild into captivity since 2002, most recently in Russia. 10 individuals illegaly caught in 2018 and held in a holding facility in Srednyaya Bay near Nakhodka have been released back into the wild in June, July and August 2019.
The growing uneasiness with the concept of keeping orcas in captivity has only been increased by the renowned documentary Blackfish, documenting the reality of the captives' existence.
Despite the best attempts of the display industry to blow a smokescreen over such negative publicity, the wider world is now increasingly aware that all is not well in fantasy-land.
In recent years, first a trickle, then a steady torrent, of incidents have been reported.
A growing catalogue of 'accidents', illnesses, failed pregnancies and premature deaths that have helped to show up this industry for the cruel circus that it really is.
The longest surviving orca in captivity is Corky, captured in 1969 from the Northern Resident population that inhabits the waters around Vancouver Island, Canada. She is held at SeaWorld in San Diego. None of her seven offspring in captivity have survived. Her family (known as the A5 pod) continue to thrive in the wild, including Corky's brother, Fife.
Since 2012, at least 29 orcas have been captured alive in Russian waters. While only three remain in Russia, at least 15 have been exported to China for display in aquariums there. Narnia, Nord and Naja (also known as Malishka or Juliet) are three wild caught orcas from the Sea of Okhotsk displayed at Moskvarium in Moscow.
In 2018, the infamous “whale jail” made headlines around the world. At least 11 orcas had been captured illegally and together with 90 belugas they ended up in a holding facility in Sreadnyaya Bay near Vladivostok. One orca and three belugas later disappeared and it is not clear whether they escaped or died.
A group of scientists representing a range of international organisations, including WDC, sent a letter to the Russian authorities. They offered expertise and demanded the safe release of the orcas and belugas. A team consisting of Russian and international experts was given access to the holding facility in March 2019.
There were great concerns about the health of the individuals due to the cold weather and the poor quality holding conditions.
The experts came to the conclusion, that with the right kind of rehabilitation and a robust plan, the orcas and belugas could be returned safely to their home waters. An agreement was signed by Governor of Russia's Primorsky Region to begin the process of evaluating them to determine when and how to release them.
After further negotiations the first two orcas were released into the Sea of Okhotsk at the end of June 2019.Three orcas were released in July followed by three more in early August. The remaining two individuals were brought back to their home waters at the end of August 2019.
Between June and October, 37 belugas from the whale jail were also returned to the Sea of Okhotsk. By mid November, all belugas were released.
The Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP), co-founded by WDC research fellow Erich Hoyt, has conducted research on the orca populations in Russia for many years. FEROP, together with other experts and organizations, has recommended to stop issuing official capture quotas due to the lack of information regarding population structures and sizes.
Captive killer whales
Orkid at Sea World San Diego
Captive killer whales are live killer whales (Orcinus orca) which are held in captivity by humans, often for breeding or performance purposes. The practice of capturing and displaying these whales in exhibitions began in the 1960s, soon becoming popular attractions at public aquariums and aquatic theme parks due to their intelligence, trainability, striking appearance, playfulness, and sheer size. As of August, 2019, there were 60 orcas in captivity worldwide, 33 of which are captive-born. As of January 2019 there were 19 live orcas in the Seaworld parks.
The practice of keeping killer whales in captivity is controversial, due to the separation of their familial “pod” during capture, and their living conditions and health in captivity. There have been 4 human deaths involving orcas as of 2018, 3 of which involved a whale called Tilikum. Of the reported killer whale attacks in the wild, none have been fatal.
Main article: Killer whale
Transient orcas near Unimak Island, eastern Aleutian Islands, Alaska
Killer whales are large, active and intelligent. Males range from 6 to 9.7 m (20 to 32 ft) and weigh over 8 tonnes (8.8 tons), while females range from 5 to 7 m (16 to 23 ft) and weigh 3 to 5 tonnes (3.3 to 5.5 tons). The killer whale (Orcinus orca) is the largest species of the Dolphin family. The species is found in all the world's oceans, from the frigid Arctic and Antarctic regions to warm, tropical seas. Killer whales are intelligent, versatile and opportunistic predators. Some populations feed mostly on fish, and other populations hunt marine mammals, including sea lions, seals, walruses, dolphins, large whales and some species of shark. They are considered an apex predator, as no animal predates on them. There are up to five distinct killer whale types, some of which may be separate races, subspecies or even species. Killer whales are highly social; some populations are composed of matrilineal family groups, which are the most stable of any animal species. The sophisticated social behavior, hunting techniques, and vocal behavior of killer whales have been described as manifestations of animal culture.
Although killer whales are not an endangered species, some local populations are threatened or endangered due to bioaccumulation of PCBs pollution, depletion of prey species, captures for marine mammal parks, conflicts with fishing activities, acoustic pollution, shipping vessels, stress from whale-watching boats, and habitat loss.
Capture and breeding
It is extremely difficult to capture killer whales and to provide a healthy environment for the captives. Early attempts in the 1960s caused many injuries and deaths.
However, with experience the teams who specialized in the business became more adept and post-capture survival rates improved.
Live captures peaked in the early 1970s, but have become increasingly rare as the marine parks have learned how to maintain theme park populations through captive breeding and artificial insemination.
North Eastern Pacific captures
The dorsal fin and saddle patch of a killer whale known as Sonora or sometimes Holly (A42) of the Northern Resident Orcas
The first capture in the North Eastern Pacific occurred in November 1961. A collecting crew from Marineland of the Pacific in Los Angeles, took the 5.2 m (17 ft) orca to a tank at the aquarium, where she repeatedly crashed into the walls. She was named Wanda and died the following day. The next killer whale captured, Moby Doll, had been harpooned and shot in 1964 and survived for three months when brought back for display to Vancouver, British Columbia. The third capture for display occurred in June 1965 when William Lechkobit found a 22-foot (6.7m) male orca in his floating salmon net that had drifted close to shore near Namu, British Columbia. The killer whale was sold for $8,000 to Ted Griffin, a Seattle public aquarium owner. Named after his place of capture, Namu was the subject of a film that changed some people's attitudes toward orcas.
In October 1965, Shamu, a very young, 14 foot (4.
25m), 2000 lb (900 kg) Southern Resident orca was captured by Ted Griffin off Penn Cove, Puget Sound to be a companion for the orca Namu at Griffin's Seattle public aquarium.
 Her name means ‘Friend of Namu’ (alternately 'She-Namu'). However, Shamu did not get along with Namu and so was sold to SeaWorld in San Diego in December 1965.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, nearly 50 killer whales were taken from Pacific waters for exhibition. The Southern Resident community of the Northeast Pacific lost 48 of its members to captivity. By 1976, only 80 killer whales were left in the community, which remains endangered.
With subsequent captures, the theme parks learned more about avoiding injury during capture and subsequent care of killer whales, and discovered that they could be trained to perform tricks, making them a great attraction to visitors.
As commercial demand increased, growing numbers of Pacific orcas were captured, peaking in 1970.
Lolita, the second oldest captive orca who was six years old at the time of capture.
A turning point came with a mass capture of orcas from the L-25 pod in August 1970 at Penn Cove, Puget Sound off the coast of Washington.
The Penn Cove capture became controversial due to the large number of wild killer whales that were taken (seven) and the number of deaths that resulted: four juveniles died, as well as one adult female who drowned when she became tangled in a net while attempting to reach her calf.
In his interview for the CNN documentary Blackfish, former diver John Crowe told how all five of the whales had their abdomen slit open and filled with rocks, their tails weighted down with anchors and chains, in an attempt to conceal the deaths.
 The facts surrounding their deaths were discovered three months later after three of the dead whales washed ashore on Whidbey Island. Public concern about the welfare of the animals and the effect of captures on the wild pods led to the Marine Mammal Protection Act being passed in 1972 by the US Congress, protecting orcas from being harassed or killed, and requiring special permits for capture. Since then, few wild orcas have been captured in Northeastern Pacific waters.
Lolita, originally known as Tokitae, was a survivor of the Penn Cove captures. She was about six years old at time of capture and is now the second oldest captive killer whale.
Lolita is the subject of the documentary Lolita: Slave to Entertainment, released in 2008. Various groups still argue that Lolita should be released into the wild.
Lolita's mother, L-25 (also known as Ocean Sun), is still alive at approximately 90 years old and is the oldest living southern resident orca in the wild.
Why killer whales should not be kept in captivity
Is it finally time to stop keeping orcas in captivity?
For the last few years there has been a torrent of stories of captive orcas suffering severe health problems, and in some cases attacking and even killing their trainers.
Many of these stories have focused on an orca called Tilikum, who lives at SeaWorld Orlando in Florida. Tilikum has been involved in three deaths during his time in captivity.
SeaWorld has now announced that Tilikum's health appears to be deteriorating, possibly due to a bacterial infection in his lungs.
In response, conservation groups are once again calling for an end to the practice of keeping orcas, and other large marine mammals, in captivity. Are they right?
Captive orcas have long been a controversial subject, but an incident in 2010 dragged them into the limelight.
In front of a crowd of visitors, Tilikum dragged his trainer Dawn Brancheau under the water and killed her. He had previously been part of a group of three orcas that drowned a trainer in 1991, and in 1999 he apparently drowned a man who was trespassing in the park.
They are too large to be kept in captivity
The 2010 killing initially sparked headlines around the world expressing shock, and calling for Tilikum to be put down.
But others, especially marine mammal scientists, were not only sympathetic to Tilikum: they blamed his keepers. The 2013 documentary Blackfish argued that his violent outbursts were directly brought on by the stressful conditions of his captivity.
In line with this, several decades of observation show that orcas are not naturally violent towards humans. There are no recorded cases of a wild orca killing a human.
“In captivity, we force this artificial proximity to human beings, so the orcas do act out once in a while and kill you,” says marine mammal scientist Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, DC. “They are too large to be kept in captivity.”
Orcas (Orcinus orca) are also known as killer whales, but they are actually dolphins, not whales – although both whales and dolphins belong to the same group, the cetaceans.
The practice of taking them into captivity started in the 1960s. Orcas were caught as juveniles and moved into tanks, ready to be trained to perform tricks for our entertainment.
Living in captivity is a far cry from the orcas' natural world
According to the charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation, at least 150 orcas have been taken into captivity since 1961. SeaWorld has not captured a wild orca for 35 years, instead breeding them in captivity. But elsewhere orcas are still captured: in Russia 14 have been caught since 2002.
Today 56 orcas remain in captivity, part of a total of 2,000 captive dolphins, according to the Change for Animals Foundation.
Clearly, living in captivity is a far cry from the orcas' natural world. Many researchers now argue that captivity does not come close to addressing their main needs.
To start with, consider the vastness of their natural habitat, the ocean.
They are the most social mammal on Earth
“These are animals that coordinate their movements over scales of tens of kilometres. It's difficult to replicate that in any aquarium,” says conservation biologist Rob Williams at Oceans Initiative in Seattle, Washington.
Many orcas travel over 100km (62 miles) every day.